A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte

When this book was published, Victorian audiences didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t the light, fluffy romance and romp that they were accustomed to. Instead, it was dark, violent, and stormy, and there was no happy ending for most of the characters. 

‘Wuthering Heights’ is about love, but it’s not romantic. It’s about dysfunction, selfishness, misunderstanding, bullying and manipulation. Much like Heathcliff and the Yorkshire moors on which the novel is set, it’s a bit dismal and morose most of the time, but it has power and substance that are fascinating and somewhat spellbinding. 

I love the power of the writing and the tempest that inhabits the characters and their relationships. I am fascinated by the cleverness of the intrigue and mystery woven into the narrative. I enjoy the fact that the narrators, Nellie Dean and Mr Lockwood, tell the story as though they are objective onlookers, but when you delve into the story, you can see that neither of them is innocent or objective as the story develops. All the characters are flawed and selfish and broken in one way or another, and I remain unconvinced that we’re meant to actually like any of them. It really is a fascinating study of human psychology as much as it is a compelling work of fiction. 

Even so, the story works because it is expertly written. The storytelling and the imagery are profound and beautifully constructed. The story appeals to our human nature, and to those voyeuristic tendencies that make people watch on with interest as things go wrong, take satisfaction in the misery of others, and slow down to get a better look at car accidents or natural disasters.  

I have read ‘Withering Heights’ more times than I can remember, and I know I will read it again. It may have been published in 1847, but it’s a story that, for me at least, will never get old. 

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A Favourite Classic Novel: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

You’ve got to hand it to the Bronte sisters: they certainly had a handle on brooding, emotionally charged stories that made powerful observations about human nature and psychology. 

Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ immerses the reader in the life of the young Jane, orphaned and unloved, and has them look on over her shoulder as she grows up, learning resilience and wisdom while finding her place in the word. The relationship between Jane and the reader is an intimate one, in which Jane tells her story and reveals her thoughts and feelings as if to a confidante. 

Whether or not you agree with her choices, Jane is a in independent and spirited woman in an age where that was not really socially acceptable, and her story is certainly a compelling read.

A Favourite Classic Novel: Winnie The Pooh by A.A. Milne

Winnie the Pooh and his friends have been dearly loved for generations by readers all the world over. The stories of friendship, loyalty and fun are delightful entertainment for children and grownups alike. 

Of course, Disney’s purchase of the production rights to the stories resulted in greater exposure to new generations, but it also gave the characters newly altered appearances and American accents. The movies and TV programs are fun, and I enjoy them immensely, but in my mind they are a different generation of a much loved family. 

I really love the original stories and the illustrations by E.H. Shepard that accompanied them. The books that I had as a child have been passed on to other children in my family, but I do have a lovely set of paperbacks on my own shelf that still have all those original illustrations. 

I also have a copy of the 80th anniversary edition of the book, complete with hard cover, dust jacket and colour illustrations, that is precious to me for a reason beyond the fact that it’s a book I love. This particular book was given to me by a family as a thank-you gift for teaching a number of their children and helping them get through senior high school English. I keep their ‘thank you” card inside the front cover to preserve the memory, although I doubt I will ever forget that beautiful gift and the kindness with which it was given. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Treasure Island’ by R.L. Stevenson

‘Treasure Island’ is a ripping adventure story of pirates, treasure, mystery and courage that takes the young Jimn Hawkins from his home at the Admiral Benbow Inn to the Caribbean and back again. 

It has been made into movies, cartoons for TV, comic strips, graphic novels and all sorts of adaptations over the years but, for me, nothing beats the original book.

The story is told richly, with an interesting and varied cast of characters. The most famous figure in the book is Long a John Silver, whose reputation exceeds that of anyone else in the story. People may not recognise the name of Jim Hawkins, the heroic young main character of the novel , but everyone knows of Silver as a notorious pirate. 

‘Treasure Island’ is a great book for older children and teenagers. It’s a book that I still love reading, and I always enjoy enjoy teaching it because my students always respond positively to the story and it’s key ideas. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee

This is such an important book. Through the eyes and experiences of six-year-old Scout Finch, the reader comes to understand key lessons about prejudice, equality, and personal integrity that profoundly influence the way they see and interact with other people. 

The story is told in a very matter-of-fact manner, yet it is laden with irony and quite intricately constructed layers of meaning that give it depth and enable it to have a powerful effect on the reader. The simplicity of Scout’s questions contrasts with the significance of the behaviour and beliefs challenged by her perplexity, while the wisdom of the adults to whom she turns for answers inspires the reader, too. 

I have numerous favourite scenes and quotations from this book, but the one I love most is the tender scene between father and daughter at the close of the book, which really emphasises the message of the book as a whole: 

A Favourite Classic Book: ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell

This novella is a genius piece of political satire based on the events leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the rule of the dictators who followed. 

The allegorical use of animals on a farm enables the author to be critical and insightful without making direct accusations. Indeed, the most effective use of insinuations and suggestions is a trait that Orwell shares with Snowball and Napoleon, the two most prominent characters in the book. 

As the plot moves from incitement to revolution and then tyranny, each phase of influence and control is cleverly and powerfully exposed as those in charge exert their will over the rest of the characters.

Although it was published seventy years ago, this brilliant work retains a great deal of relevance today because, in all honesty, politics and politicians haven’t really changed that much. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Vanity Fair’ by William Makepeace Thackeray

‘Vanity Fair’ is the story of Becky Sharp, a woman who starts out with very little and demonstrates that with ingenuity and determination, one could work one’s way up the ranks of society, despite the upper classes pretensions that this could never be so. 

Written with considerable wit and thoughtful insight, it’s a really entertaining story, but it also delivers a fascinating study of human nature and quite biting commentary on social status and those who possess it.

Although our society has changed significantly since this book was published in 1848, human nature hasn’t, so ‘Vanity Fair’ remains quite a relevant commentary on people and how they see and treat one another. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen

Many people assume that this is a book all about love and courtship. That comes into it, of course, but really only the sense that Jane Austen is blowing an enormous raspberry to the way society did those things.

‘Pride and Prejudice’ is full of delicious snark and subversive humour, parody and caricature, that make its observations far more rapier than romantic. 

Of course, Mr Darcy is smolderingly handsome and, as an introvert, I totally get that he was regretting being dragged along to that party long before he even got there, and by the time he was offending all the locals, was busy trying to think of ways to leave without anyone noticing. Further evidence of that is found in the fact that he falls for the one brainy chick who is happy in her own company and reading a book without needing someone affirming her delicate sense of self every three minutes.

Elizabeth is smart and sassy enough to stand up for herself, and to not settle for the first nincompoop who tried to marry her, nor does she agree to marry Darcy just because he’s loaded. No, she is a woman of substance.

Those things are enough to make us love them both more than the rest of the characters, most of whom are either quite socially acceptably bland or rather horrid.

If you’re not sure where to find the sarcasm,  it all starts with the very first line. Let’s be honest: what rich man, living the dream and enjoying his wealth, is desperate to find a wife to keep him at home and spend his money for him? 

Yeah. I don’t think so, either. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Anne of Green Gables’ by L.M. Montgomery

Among its feisty, quirky main character Anne Shirley and the entire delightful cast of characters, the wonderful story and animated storytelling, and the magnificent Prince Edward Island settings which I have visited in person, there is nothing about this book that I do not adore. 

Anne taught me that it was a wonderful thing to love books and poetry more than anyone else I knew, and that it was better to be myself than to try to be someone else. She showed me how to embrace my quirks and to disregard the criticism of those made uncomfortable by them. 
This is a wonderful story, beautifully told, which I have loved since I first read it when I was seven years old. Yes, I was a prodigious reader even then, having started reading for myself at the age of three! Like Anne, I started out in the way I was destined to continue.

My vintage copy of ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and the postcards I bought at Green Gables on Prince Edward Island.

This vintage copy came to me courtesy of my favourite book rescue shelter, Spectrum Books in Warrnambool. It is the same vintage as the set I inherited from my mother although, sadly, her copy of ‘Anne of Green Gables’ has been lost.

I remember that her book had an original bookplate inside the front cover which she had drawn and painted before adding her name and the date. For me, that is the saddest part of losing her book: her art is lost, too. This is her work inside the cover of the sequel, ‘Anne of Avonlea’, which she received along with the first book for Christmas when she was thirteen years old. 
Her full name was named Shirley Anne – named after both Shirley Temple and Anne Shirley of ‘Green Gables’ fame. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens

I have always enjoyed Dickens’ knack for transporting the reader to the grimy streets of London, or to the interior of a neat little Victorian house, and have them understand exactly why they had been taken there. His imagery and characterisation are vivid and his wit is razor sharp. 

I have several favourites among his novels, but ‘A Christmas Carol’ would have to be at the top of that list. In addition to its searing social criticism and powerful message about what actually matters in life, it is infused with some really well written macabre and Gothic horror scenes that have a profound effect on both Scrooge and the reader. It’s a short read with a huge impact.